I got started self-publishing books shortly after I began writing my first thriller. Initially, I looked around for traditional publishing companies that I thought might be interested in the book — I checked the acknowledgements sections of my favorite thrillers, hoping to find a lead for an agent or small shop that would bite.

You can probably guess how the rest of the story goes: shopping around for publishers, reading up on query writing, pitching a few agents…

…And then giving up.

Some people throw in the towel because of the sheer amount of work required: the 100s of submissions (and consequent rejections), the endless pitching and shopping the book, the confusing mess of paperwork surrounding advances and contracts.

Maybe those reasons had something to do with why I decided to try it all myself. I like to think, however, that I went the self-publishing route because of the promise of control and the desire to learn a new set of skills.

I’m glad I did.

I certainly learned a lot in the process of publishing that first book. What was most amazing though was how much I learned self-publishing each other book I released in the three years after. Each book brought with it new challenges, new concepts to grasp, and new lessons.

One of the most important things I learned happened during the layout process of a nonfiction book I wanted to release in paperback format. I had to figure out how to get the cover designed and uploaded correctly, the interior formatted correctly, and choose a font that was readable and fit with the subject matter.

This process was eye-opening: I’d never before browsed through books on my shelf to look at things like line spacing, font style, interior layout, page numbering options, header styles, and more. Also, I’d never really paid much attention to book covers: were they nice? Did they attract my attention? What was the difference between book covers of book in the thriller genre and the romance genre?

These questions led me down the rabbit hole of book design, and eventually led to my understanding and belief that book design — inside and out — is crucial to great publishing. The question, then, is this:

What are the important things to look for in great book design?

Put yourself in the shoes of a potential buyer. What are they looking for? Where are they looking? Do they already have an author or genre in mind?

Try to imagine what this process looks like: picture the storefront (or online store) they’re shopping in, the speed through which they browse the lists of books. If you’re writing in a certain genre, your customer knows what book covers in that genre “should” look like — if you’re writing historical romance, that book cover is going to look drastically different from the book cover on an erotic steampunk fantasy novel.

In addition to “matching” the style of your genre, look out for book cover designs that “stick out” in a bad way: you don’t want cheesy stock photography, overused (and widely recognizable) fonts, and unprofessional editing. If it costs a little money to make sure it’s done right, it’s probably going to be worth the expense. Remember, this is an investment in a writing career — not just a quick solution.

A solid book cover design can be procured for less than $300. Websites like 99designs.com specialize in quick turnarounds, low prices, and great end results. Browse through options on sites like these to see what different artists and designers are capable of, but do be sure to look for someone who has had experience designing a book cover — preferably someone who knows and enjoys your genre.

The best experience you can get in choosing a cover design (or, if you’re doing it yourself, knowing what’s going to work or not) is to simply look around. Browse the library stacks, bookshelves in your home and office, and walk through a local bookseller’s shop. Take careful note of different font selections, cover blurbs, wording for the byline and any additional text, etc.

The bottom line for book covers is this: more often than not, the cover is the first thing your buyer will see. Make it look professional, stand out in a good way, and line up with their expectations.

What are the important things to look for in a great interior design?

That’s right; your book’s interior needs to be designed as well. It’s not enough to just choose a cool font in Microsoft Word and export your chapters as a PDF. You need to make sure the spacing between lines and paragraphs, and sometimes individual letters, is correct.

Design of anything is subjective to tastes and preferences, as well as experience and needs — a font face that might look great to you and win design awards might be too small for some readers to even see. Since there’s subjectivity like this involved, you can never please everyone. However, there are some things you can look out for to make sure your book will be widely readable and enjoyable to hold and feel.

Reading a book, in paper form at least, is a tactile experience, and choosing the right options for interior design can make the difference between great experience and throwing your book away. When I start a book design project, these are the things — in order — I think about:

  1. Book size. If there’s a standard for my genre, I’ll start there. 6″ x 9″ is standard in the US for trade paperbacks, regardless of genre, so it might be an easy choice for a first edition release. Mass-market paperbacks are usually around 4.25″ x 6.75″, and are printed on lower-quality paper than trade paperbacks or hard cover. While I love (and prefer) mass-market paperbacks for their small size and lower cost, I will usually follow the “tradition” of printing trade-sized copies (both hard cover and paperback) for a first-run edition of my books, and then follow those up with a mass-market size a few months to a year later. As with all aspects of self-publishing, check your bookshelf for your own preferences, and browse a store in your region to see what the top selling sizes are for books in your genre.
  2. Paper quality/color. One of the easiest ways to tell if a book has been self-published through a “vanity”-type press is by the paper quality. Companies like Lulu and CreateSpace (Amazon-owned), as of this writing, don’t print on the same paper type as many larger presses. If you were to print a book on bright white (~90 brightness) copy paper, you’ll know what I mean. These companies do offer a “cream” color paper, but it’s still thicker than some of the books I prefer and the cream color is so deep it’s almost brown. For the highest quality paper that “feels” right, I suggest using Lightning Source (LSI) for print-on-demand and short-run prints.
  3. Font face Once I get past the cover and paper quality, the next thing I notice is the font used for the majority of the text within the book. Many people will leave the standard Word font of Times New Roman as the font throughout their book, but this font was originally created for the New York Times newspaper to display text in columns. It’s naturally a tighter face, with tracking and kerning applied to “squeeze” letters closer together. Instead, try a font face like Garamond or Garamond Pro for fiction, and possibly even a sans-serif font for nonfiction. The goal is to make your book readable, pleasing to the eye, and not a distraction to anyone. This truly is easier said than done — test different fonts and spacings by printing out a few pages and giving them to friends to read and judge.
  4. Text spacing. The spacing between lines of text in your manuscript is another area that self-published authors should pay careful attention to. Too much space and it’s almost insulting to the reader; too little and it’s nearly impossible to read. The goal, again, is to create a feeling of openness; a balance between your chosen font face and the corresponding line spacing and paragraphs. I’ve found spacing somewhere between 1.1 times and 1.3 times the font size to be ideal for most projects, fiction or nonfiction: take your font size (14 pt., 12 pt., etc.) and multiply it by 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 to get a general idea of the spacing (in pt. terms).
  5. Headers and Headings. Your book will have sections, chapters, and/or parts, and each of these will need to be delineated by a heading. In a layout program like Quark or InDesign, you can set these up on a “master” template, or in Word or another word processing program use predefined “section” styles. Headers are the text at the top of every page in a book that display the author’s name, book title, and possibly chapter information and names. Headers look best when they’re in the same font as the rest of the book, and can be aligned to the right or left of the facing pages and in italics.
  6. Margins and columns. Most fiction books don’t use columns, but some nonfiction books feature two- or three-column layouts, callout boxes, and other layout decorations. Space these out in a way that matches the line height of the main text blocks and line spacing. For margins, grab a published book the same size as yours and measure the margins on each page. Regardless of what’s on the page, you’re probably going to want each page to have the same margins throughout. Also note the difference in “facing page” margins — margins on a left-side page may be different than those on a right-side page, due to the way the book is bound. Perfect-bound books and saddle-stitch binds are both going to need more spacing from the edge on “inside” margins (the right side of a left-side page and the left side of a right-side page).
  7. Pictures and images. Finally, if your book contains any imagery within the text like descriptive maps, iconography, etc., get a proof copy of the manuscript before you send it out into the world. Short-run prints (depending on who’s printing, fewer than 1,000 or fewer than 10,000 copies) typically don’t print using the same technology as larger-run orders. Sometimes printers use one technology (digital or offset) only, and the difference is easily seen in the quality of images used in the book. For example, my first few books were printed on a digital press, using a “dot”-style print to save money (their choice, not mine!). Instead of coating a page with solid black (the “K” in “CMYK” color), each text element and image was printed using dots to fill a percentage of the area. If I’d printed a solid black square on a page, this square would actually be printed with tiny dots spaced evenly throughout the image. The end result would be a dark gray square, not a black one. While this result is certainly subtle, and often unnoticed by the casual reader in lengthy blocks of text, it can make a real difference depending on what images your book will include. If your book is image-centric, like a photo album, cookbook, or the like, it might make sense to spend the extra money on going with an offset printer or doing the book in full color.

A great book design is difficult to produce mechanically — there’s rarely a “right” or “wrong” way to do things. The best advice, therefore, is to tweak, change, and alter small parts of the above options until you’re happy with the result. Send your finished proof out to friends, family members, beta readers, and anyone who has read a book before, and seek their honest feedback. You’ll be able to find things you hadn’t noticed or thought about before, and best of all, you’ll be able to hear from actual “users” what their experience with your product was like.

Another final note about the differences between paper (hard copies) and electronic book formats: while the above information mainly refers to paper book formatting and layout, some of the same principles apply to electronic formats. When designing for Kindle, for example, your cover design is probably more important than it is when designing for paperback or hardcover. Readers don’t browse an online bookstore the same way they do an offline shop — rather than “spine out,” like in most traditional stores, online stores have virtually endless shelf space, and will display the cover of the book instead.

Keep in mind that you need to design a cover that looks great in these bookstores, where your cover will most likely be only thumbnail-sized, not full quality. It should be easy to read, eye-catching, and well-designed, but not cluttered enough that it loses focus and resolution at the smaller size.

For interiors, there’s not much you’ll be able to do to “control” the user experience. At this stage in the game, the manufacturers of ebook readers and devices have final say over how a book is displayed on their screens. Your careful formatting, line spacing, and even font choices can be (and most likely will be) completely changed on-the-fly by the end user. For this reason, don’t spend too much energy working on fonts and layouts for e-reader devices. Instead, focus on removing extraneous formatting tags and useless code injected by programs like Microsoft Word (Word, actually, is notorious for this type of “stuff” that ends up in the final HTML output. Best idea is to use a different program altogether for your writing, like Scrivener, and bypass Word completely). A great solution for me has to work on the hard copy format first within my writing program (Scrivener), which also handles output to .ePub and .MOBI formats (generic ebook format and Kindle’s proprietary format, respectively). I export to .ePub from this “final” format, then convert the .ePub to .MOBI using a free program called Calibre. I like the Table of Contents and .ocx generator (required for .MOBI formats) better than Scrivener’s, so this extra step in the workflow makes sense to me.

If any of the above information is confusing, or you need more help, there is a wealth of information freely available online here on this website, or at other sites that offer self-publishing resources. I’d recommend checking out the Power 100 list of the 100 best websites for self-published authors: Check out the Power 100 here.

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